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Conquer Your Fears: Open Water Swim Anxiety

After I reflected on my early morning drive to Laguna Beach this past weekend. I realized that despite my years of triathlon racing and experience, I have only done two (yes, TWO) open water swims in the ocean. Most of my races have been in fresh water lakes or rivers. I absolutely love swimming in the open water, but I also share many concerns that most triathletes and swimmers have.

“Those swells look big… Hopefully, I don’t get caught in a rip current.”

“It’s pretty murk in the water, I can’t see underneath me…”

“That buoy looks so far away! I don’t think I can swim that far.”

“Were those fins out there?!”

All these negative thoughts of doubt, worry, and fear strike the common athlete very hard. All of sudden, no amount of training you’ve done in the past can help you in this moment. Hormones like adrenaline and cortisol have been flooded into the body, causing what’s known as the stress response. Elevated heart rates, shaking uncontrollably, clammy palms, butterflies in your stomach, tunnel vision, MORE negative thoughts creep in. What do we do now?

I finally get to the stairs leading to the beach, and as I look over into the water, it is extremely rough, and the waves were 3 - 4 feet high and the current looked strong. I was waiting for 10 others to accompany me in this journey. This was going to be a huge confidence booster for me because my thoughts were “If they do it, it won’t be THAT bad to go out there. At least I’ll have people with me.” Fast forward 20 minutes, and only one has showed up. After discussing between the two of us, we decide we were still going to do it… Great.

I get my wetsuit on and begin heading to the freezing water. I peer into the water and dolphins are breaching the water, riding the waves. The sky is gloomy, and the water is rough. Amidst chaos in the dark ocean, with the large waves crashing towards me, and the doubts that were going through my mind earlier; inside I am calm, focused, and ready to swim.

Don’t worry, below I’m going to give you some tips that I utilize to clear my mind and manage those open water swim anxieties. These skills should be practiced before you get into competition.

Inhale/Exhale: Find a Relaxation Technique that Works for You

The first step in anxiety reduction, coping with fears, and controlling your performance is controlling the body and mind with relaxation techniques. This can be done by simple breathing patterns where you inhale for 5 seconds, and exhale for 7 seconds. Notice the longer time exhaling here. This cycle of breathing allows more oxygen to the body (and brain), increase sustained attention and focus, decrease muscle tension, and decrease negative emotions and stress.

Other techniques for relaxation include progressive muscle relaxation using body scans. Body scans start from your head down, where you purposely tense up individual muscle groups (3-5 seconds) and then subsequently release and relax the muscle (15 seconds). Slowly working your way down to your feet. The goal is to be able to recognize when you have stress or tension in the body and to release that tension prior to a performance.

Try downloading these free apps on your phone to help practice calming those nerves. Headspace. Calm.

Anchor Your Focus to the Present Moment

I am a strong believer in present moment focus. What I mean by that is that your focus, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are strictly in the present, not thinking about the past or future. With so much added pressure and distractions outside of your sport that can negatively influence your performance, we need to manage the moment and stay present. There are so many uncontrollables in open water (temperature, currents, swells, wildlife, etc.). We need to understand what we actually have control over (breathing, arm cycle, sighting, etc.) because this will lead to skill control and ultimately our performance.

Your focus can be anchored to your breath to immerse yourself in the present. Instead of aimlessly breathing in for 5 seconds and out for 7 seconds. Try counting with your inhale and exhale, and when you have a thought or distraction come in just redirect your attention to the breath and continue the counting. This form of meditation can improve your chances of present moment focus and decrease the chances of negative thoughts and emotions creeping in prior to an open water swim.

During the swim, you can also stay in the present moment by counting strokes, mumbling or humming on exhales, getting into a rhythm during your freestyle stroke, or turn your attention to a landmark.

Plan and Prepare for the Unexpected

The more your practice open water swimming, the fewer unknowns you’ll have on race day. You’ll know how to deal with the chops, cold water, or potential seaweed getting stuck in your goggles. Practice with large groups to get used to swimming in pods of people within close vicinity and having feet in your face while you’re swimming. No matter how much you prepare, there are still things that usually come up that we won’t expect. Mentally prepare yourself by practicing the two strategies above to help cope when those potential stressors come up. Stress should cause preparation, and preparation can be a huge factor in boosting confidence in the open water.

Accept What’s Happening

This goes hand-in-hand with what I talked about above. Acceptance in times of stress, hardship, and challenges is crucial for open water swimmers and triathletes to learn. If the water is cold, for instance, you’re not going to be able to magically change the water temperature to make it warmer. You’re also not going to all of a sudden have a physiological temperature change outside of just moving to warm the body up, and the waves aren’t suddenly going to disappear. These things are outside of your control and they can’t change, so your mind must change. If you come to acceptance with the water, you remove the chances of your body fighting it. It might still be a physical challenge, but it will become less of a mental one.

Hopefully these strategies can help you during stressful times and you can conquer your open water anxieties. If you have more questions or want to learn more, send us a message and we can chat!

Inhale. Exhale.


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